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The Watch: Florida and the SEC’s murky, bloated bubble picture

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The Gators’ struggles last week epitomizes an SEC race where contenders are inconsistent and just about anyone can state a case for the NCAA tournament.

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NCAA Basketball: Florida at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Florida coach Mike White’s face told the story, equal parts confusion, frustration, and dismay.

Four days, two blown leads and a tarnished NCAA tournament resume tends to do that to a coach.

On Saturday, forward Kevarrius Hayes‘ mental error proved fatal. With 12 seconds left and trailing by one, Hayes seemingly did his job, trapping Vanderbilt forward Joe Toye in the right corner of the Memorial Coliseum floor. Toye turned his back, and the shot clock dwindled. All Hayes needed to do was keep him in place for five seconds for turnover and a final possession.

Instead, Hayes gave Toye a bear hug. Vandy’s big man sank two free throws. Florida clanked a couple last-second heaves. And UF left Nashville with a 71-68 loss after slowly letting its nine-point lead slowly bleed out over the final 13 minutes.

Now, that might be enough pain for one week. Only it was the second lead the Gators squandered in four days. On Wednesday, they wilted with an 11-point margin against Georgia before losing in overtime.

Ideally, the Gators would enter this week sitting at second place in the SEC standings. Instead, they stumbled backward into a four-team thicket fighting for third. Now, they face a brutal closing stretch — at Tennessee, Auburn, at Alabama and Kentucky — and a dented NCAA tournament case.

No, the Gators aren’t sitting on the cutline. Yes, they’re 17-10 overall and sitting at 8-6 in the SEC standings. Sure, their RPI slid seven spots to No. 63 on Sunday. Absolutely they’ve now lost to Ole Miss (No. 122), Vanderbilt (No. 102), South Carolina (No. 77) and a twice to Georiga (No. 65) during conference play. Oh, there’s also a home loss to Loyola Chicago, a team adored by predictive metrics but not a defeat the selection committee might view so favorably. But UF is also 6-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents, including wins over Gonzaga and Cincinnati.

Bad as last week was for White, his team is still in position for a No. 8 or No. 9 seed — barring a collapse in the next two weeks.

The Gators’ are zombies, neither alive nor dead, meandering around the world and still a threat you don’t want to encounter.

And in so many ways, they encapsulate the SEC race, one where inconsistency among preseason contenders Florida, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Alabama created congestion. Right now, a mere two games are all that separates the No. 3 seed from the No. 11 seed in the SEC tournament. Up to 11 teams can craft some version of a case for an at-large bid, too. Consider this: the Aggies, which bracketologists pegged as a No. 7 seed, is currently the 11th seed in its own conference and would be slated for a play-in game in St. Louis.

Take LSU, for example. Coming off a win over Mizzou, the Bayou Bengals are 7-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents and own a resume that’s not blighted by awful losses. A home loss to Stephen F. Austin, the likely Southland champion, is offset by a pair of quality victories over Michigan and Houston. What about UGA, too? The Bulldogs are 5-7 in Quad 1 games, including a neutral floor victory against Saint Mary’s, a win at Marquette, a trio of quality SEC wins against rivals Tennessee and Florida.

Bot those teams enter the week sitting at 6-8, but each owns a workable slate that allows them to plot late-season surges toward .500 in the SEC standings. Would they need a win or two in St. Louis? Yep. Would they need other bubble teams to falter? Indeed. But the fact we can plausibly discuss the ninth and tenth teams in the league as in contention for a tournament bid is a testament to the fact that few teams have been dominant.

Using KenPom’s cumulative win expectancies, here’s a peek at what the future portends.

Projected SEC tournament seeding

Projected Seed Team Expected W Expected L
Projected Seed Team Expected W Expected L
1 Auburn 14 4
2 Tennessee 12 6
3 Alabama 10 8
4 Florida 10 8
5 Missouri 10 8
6 Arkansas 10 8
7 Texas A&M 9 9
8 Kentucky 9 9
9 Mississippi State 9 9
10 Georgia 8 10
11 LSU 8 10
12 South Carolina 7 11
13 Vanderbilt 7 11
14 Ole Miss 6 12

And, as you’ll see below, this week’s docket is loaded with games pitting teams in the top half of the table squaring off.

Over the next three weeks, expect The Watch’s recommendations to be bubblicious. By now, we have an idea of who’s safely in the field, while one-bid leagues won’t be decided until the knife fights that are their conference tournaments end during Championship Week. Currently, there are 18 to 20 high-major programs still fighting to stay in the at-large picture. Their games will take precedence, along with those crucial to the SEC race.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Baylor Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 Kansas at No. 6 Texas Tech | 3:15 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

Even on TV, you could feel the weight.

History is hefty, adding mass to the limestone blocks making up the facade of Allen Fieldhouse, decibels to the coeds lathered up in the student section and to the scales tipping the free-throw disparity toward the Jayhawks. On Saturday, West Virginia crumpled. Daxter Miles passed up an open 3-pointer for an ill-advised jump pass, holding back tears in a timeout huddle. Bob Huggins blew a gasket as KU finished plus-33 in the free-throw column, its largest margin ever in Big 12 play.

Sure, there’s something extraordinary about wilting with a double-digit lead, which the Mountaineers have done twice in a month against coach Bill Self’s undermanned crew. But this is also Kansas. And no matter how flawed, it’s bent the Big 12 to its will.

Will Texas Tech?

That’s the obvious question, one I asked last month. Or at least it’s loomed since the Red Raiders walked out of Lawrence with a victory in early January. Over the past month, though, coach Chris Beard’s group won seven in a row and built a lead atop the standings. In its back pocket: a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Jayhawks.

Then Saturday arrived. A road trip to Waco and Baylor, who’s managed to salvage a season on the skids, ended with a loss and an injury to key cog Keenan Evans.

Now, bear in mind that Tech still has a deep bench, which plays 39.7 percent of available minutes and dwarfs what KU can call upon. The Red Raiders run decent 3-point shooting teams off the line, another issue for Bill Self team that’s overly reliant on perimeter shooting. And while Udoka Azubuike is a load on the block, he’s the only post player KU can rely upon to any degree.

Go back to their first meeting, too. Not even Devonte Graham, who piled up 27 points, could bail out the Jayhawks in a game where they shot just 23.1 percent from long range and were mashed to the tune of minus-13 on the glass.

So, Texas Tech is deeper, stout defensively, balanced offensively and can wipe the backboards.

To which KU can point to the rafters of its home gym and say, “Huh, we’ll see.”


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 Auburn at Florida | 7:30 p.m. CT Saturday, SEC Network

The majority of the SEC race remains opaque, but this is clear: Two wins this week would give Auburn its first regular-season title since 1999.

The task, however, added a degree of difficulty on Saturday after a loss at South Carolina.

Tigers forward Anfernee McLemore, whose presence in the post helped Auburn offset the year-long absence of Austin Wiley, went down awkwardly with a dislocated ankle and is slated to miss the rest of the season. Over the past two weeks, Auburn’s defense has slipped a touch, especially at the rim.

Without McLemore, who leads the SEC with a 12.7 block percentage, patrolling the paint, junior forward Horace Spencer and undersized frontcourt face more strain. First, teams typically don’t run call post-ups against Auburn, averaging only 5.3 per game.

And in those situations, Spencer, Chuma Okeke and DeSean Murray have been average. The pared down rotation, though, leaves Auburn with only Spencer providing rim protection and shrinks the Tigers’ ability to keep foes off the glass. That’s a relief for an inconsistent group of Florida bigs, who’ve lacked John Egbunu all season.

On the perimeter, Auburn’s backcourt stalwarts Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown remain mired in a four-game shooting slump, hitting just 21.3 percent of their 3-point attempts. That’s overlapped with Brown nursing a foot injury, limiting the Tigers’ best perimeter shooter.

Auburn’s offense is built on attacking early in the clock with a lineup of interchangeable parts. Without McLemore, Auburn lacks a cutter and skilled roll man. Without Brown, there’s less reason for the defense to be worried about quick ball reversals. And it puts more strain on Okeke and Murray to knock in face-up jumpers when Auburn calls pick-and-pops.

On the wings, Florida’s Chris Chiozza is a check against Harper working in pick-and-rolls, while Jaled Hudson or KeVaughn Allen matchup well with the athleticism and physicality Heron possesses. Finally, Florida — a team who also thrives in transition — won’t be phased by the operating speed Auburn’s comfortable using.

Plus, look at that zones chart again. Auburn’s simultaneously struggling to run teams off the 3-point arc — something Chiozza (36.2 3FG%), Hudson (39.2%) and Egor Koulechov (42.3%) will be pleased to learn.

The odds Tennessee, which sits two games back, can close the gap with Auburn is slim, but the bigger concern for Pearl and Co. is momentum. Last week, some bracketologists placed the Tigers on No. 1 seed line. And the Tigers looked like a potential threat in March.

Maybe Auburn remains primed for a deep run. It would just help to see it manifested on the court with the completion of an improbable push for an SEC title.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: UAB at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Old Dominion at Western Kentucky | 6 p.m. CT Saturday, Stadium

Rick Stansbury didn’t quite know what he was getting.

The Western Kentucky coach recruited Dwight Coleby back when he was the head man at Mississippi State. He scouted the big man as an assistant at Texas A&M. But until Coleby, who was looking for the third stop on his well-traveled career, arrived in Bowling Green, Stansbury said ($) it was a mystery.

“When the season started, he was so anxious when we threw him the ball, he’d walk every time. He’d never had the ball thrown to him in his career.”

When the transfer debate arises and the idea of immediate eligibility, often the concern is high-majors poaching from their middle-class peers. But the grad transfer market shows just how much the pipeline flows the other way and how it can be a boon to players like Coleby and Hilltoppers wing Darius Thompson.

At Ole Miss, Coleby was a solid role player, but he left Oxford seeking a bigger role with Bill Self and Kansas. In reality, he struggled to carve out minutes in Lawrence, and after a meeting coach and player agreed a fresh start might be in order. Coleby earned his degree and free-agent status, fielding interest from Western Kentucky, Louisiana Monroe, Arkansas-Little Rock and Stephen F. Austin.

For his part, Stansbury needed to fortify depth.

The on again and off again saga of Mitchell Robinson, a top-10 prospect and McDonald’s All-American, cost Stansbury the centerpiece of his roster before the season even started. Meanwhile, wing Josh Anderson, another top-75 recruit, is still acclimating. What he did have was forward Justin Johnson and Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden. Plugging in Thompson and Coleby suddenly gave the Hilltoppers the talent and experience to compete with Conference USA rival Middle Tennesse.

During the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Hilltoppers opened eyes with a victory over Purdue, using just seven bodies and outdueling the Boilermakers veteran backcourt. They also clipped SMU while in the Bahamas. Still, those wins aren’t enough to fortify a non-conference resume where the Tops suffered defeats by five ate, Wpoints or less to Missouri State, Wisconsin, Ohio and Belmont.

The C-USA slate isn’t ripe with many opportunities, either, especially after WKU lost its first meeting to Middle last month. However, Old Dominion, which sits at No. 57 in KenPom, is the closest thing after the Blue Raiders. In the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee, sweeping the Monarchs would only net Stansbury and Co. a pair of Quadrant 2 wins. But considering Western is just 1-2 in Quad 1 games, every little bit helps.

With two weeks to go in the regular season, the Tops typically land in the Next Four Out territory of mock brackets. But when you look at the RPI, which still holds sway in the committee room, they’re two spots ahead of Florida and only a handful of spots behind fellow bubble squads Texas, Nebraska, Virginia Tech, Kansas State and Marquette. Granted, none of their competitors own four losses to teams in Quad 3.

Regardless, there’s a narrow path for the Coleby and Thompson, each of whom has NCAA tournament experience, to extend their gap year into March. And reward for Stansbury for his savvy shopping.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other matchups that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Monday

  • Miami (Fla.) at Notre Dame, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • Oklahoma at No. 8 Kansas, 8 p.m., ESPN

Tuesday

  • No. 21 West Virginia at Baylor, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Creighton at Butler, 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Mississippi State at Texas A&M, 6 p.m., SEC Network
  • Kentucky at Arkansas, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • Indiana at Nebraska, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network

Wednesday

  • Seton Hall at Providence, 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • No. 10 North Carolina at Syracuse, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 15 Clemson at Virginia Tech, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 17 Michigan at Penn State, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network
  • Loyola Chicago at Southern Illinois, 7 p.m., ESPN3
  • Alabama at No. 12 Auburn, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
  • Florida at No. 19 Tennessee, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Texas at Kansas State, 8 p.m., ESPNU
  • Louisville at No. 5 Duke, 8 p.m., ESPN

Thursday

  • Winthrop at UNC-Asheville, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • South Dakota at South Dakota State, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Saturday

  • Louisville at Virginia Tech, Noon, CBS
  • Baylor at TCU, Noon, ESPN
  • No. 3 Villanova at Creighton, 1:30 p.m., Fox
  • USC at Utah, 1:30 p.m., Pac 12 Networks
  • Syracuse at No. 5 Duke, 5 p.m., ESPN3
  • Arkansas at Alabama, 5 p.m., SEC Network
  • Kansas State at Oklahoma, 5 p.m., ESPNU
  • Missouri at Kentucky, 7:15 p.m., ESPN
  • Utah Valley at Grand Canyon, 8 p.m., ESPN3

Sunday

  • Furman at East Tennessee State, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • Iona at Rider, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 25 Florida State at North Carolina State, 5 p.m., ESPNU
  • Penn State at Nebraska, 6:15 p.m., Big Ten Network

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!